An Indian health worker wearing personnel protection kit (PPE) collects nasal swab samples in Gauhati, India, Saturday, July 4, 2020. Credit: Anupam Nath | AP

Maine has spent more than $33 million on the masks, gowns and other protective supplies that are meant to keep health care workers safe since the coronavirus pandemic struck in March.

But in the middle of the greatest public health crisis in generations, the state has also faced fluctuating prices and shipping delays as it has competed for those goods with many other buyers from across the country and globe.

With funds provided through the federal coronavirus relief legislation passed earlier this year, Maine has been working to acquire everything from disposable gloves to jugs of hand sanitizer to the custom-fitting respirator masks that are designed to filter out 95 percent of particles, according to procurement data the BDN requested from Maine’s Department of Administrative and Financial Services.

It has been distributing those goods to health care providers, nursing homes, schools, state employees and other groups that have the greatest need for them, according to state officials.

The demand for those products shot up in March, as shown in the price swings the state encountered as it ordered personal protective equipment, or PPE as it’s commonly called. For example, the state’s procurement division ordered more than a million N95 masks between late March and the end of July, at per-unit prices ranging from 35 cents to $6.29.

The largest portion of Maine’s PPE funding — $20.7 million — has gone to protective clothing such as gowns and isolation suits, according to state procurement data. The next most in-demand products have been face masks and shields, which cost the state $8 million through the end of July.

It spent $33.8 million of its federal coronavirus relief funding on PPE between late March and the end of July, according to state data. In total, the state expects to receive at least $1.25 billion from those federal funds.

The $33.8 million doesn’t include equipment the state received from the federal stockpile administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and it also doesn’t include what the state’s health care organizations have purchased on their own.

About a quarter of the PPE orders were placed with in-state companies, including some of the many manufacturers — including Flowfold of Gorham, W.S. Emerson of Brewer and Butler Brothers of Lewiston — that have adjusted their business models to meet the new demand for face shields, masks, hand sanitizer and other critical items.

Two other orders were placed with online giant Amazon — one for canisters of sanitary wipes, another for no-touch thermometers — but all of the rest were through businesses scattered across the U.S. that aren’t household names.

Because of the sudden manner in which the virus flared up in the U.S. late last winter, states have been forced to compete with each other — and with other groups — for those supplies in a way they never really had to previously, according to Prakash Mirchandani, a professor of business administration who heads the Center for Supply Chain Management at the University of Pittsburgh.

Over the last century, there have been almost no other events like the coronavirus that have caused such large spikes in demand for certain supplies, according to Mirchandani. He pointed to World War II as another global event that caused manufacturers to mobilize en masse, but noted that they had far more lead time in that case.

“I don’t think there has been anything that is comparable to this, because the demand went up so dramatically,” he said. “In some ways, everyone is trying to take care of their own, and so states and hospitals and nursing homes tried to acquire what was needed to make sure that the patients could be treated in a safe fashion and to make sure that providers were protected.”

Now, after manufacturers have ramped up production of protective equipment during the pandemic, Mirchandani said he expects many of them to maintain that capacity for years to come.

Another indication of the disruption the coronavirus has brought to the national supply chain was the lag time in the delivery of the state’s 60-some PPE orders. About half of them had delivery times listed as more than two weeks, including several that would take two months or longer, and two that were expected to take more than 150 days.

For example, one order for 2,000 N95 masks that the state placed on March 31 didn’t arrive until June 1. The state doesn’t expect to receive another order for 50,000 extra small N95 masks until Dec. 31, after placing the order on May 22.

The “greatest challenge” of obtaining PPE has been “locating items that can be manufactured and delivered in a timely fashion at a price that is affordable,” said Anya Trundy, director of legislative affairs in the Department of Administrative and Financial Services.

While competition from other states has made it harder for Maine to find those supplies, Trundy said that the Pine Tree State entered into a partnership earlier this summer with Washington D.C. and the states of Hawaii and Vermont — the only two states with lower per-capita COVID-19 infection rates than Maine, as of this week — that has helped the state obtain lower wholesale pricing.

“Combining the buying power of our small jurisdictions overcomes rising prices, and increases our ability to secure PPE faster than possible as individual states,” Trundy said. “Some types of PPE remain difficult to procure because of worldwide demand and the availability of the materials used to manufacture them.”